Great danger is always associated with great power. The difference between the great and the mediocre is that the great are willing to take the risk.
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang is an epic fantasy that “draws its plot and politics from mid-20th-century China, and its aesthetic from Song Dynasty China”, a mashup of Postclassical China and World War II. I think I liked it, but I don’t think I’ll continue with the series.
The protagonist is a young girl in Pseudo-China, who attends a kind of advanced military academy and later serves in a war — with martial arts and drug-magic-shamanism — against the Pseudo-Japanese.
The book took me forever to read. Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t DIFFICULT to read. The language is straightforward, written in a modern, “hip,” not-quite-YA-but-really-close writing style. Sometimes, epic fantasies, science fiction tales, or adventure stories will be overloaded with dense descriptions of the world that take a long time for me to wade through. That’s not the case in this book. It’s propulsive and clear, with simple-but-pretty language.
It wasn’t the first part of the book that gave me trouble, as I read through that quickly. It is set in the military academy. This section is derivative as heck, as if it strives to cover the major “hits” of Ender’s Game, Harry Potter, and The Name of the Wind. But all good school stories are probably going to have at least some of the elements from those novels, and if it’s a cover, it’s a really well-made cover.
It’s the second part of the book that slowed me down. Out of school and into a war, the protagonist becomes more passive, weighing the options before her. She is pulled to-and-fro by the competing influences around her. She…becomes a little boring. The violence of the book really amped up, too. There are some truly horrific things in this book, that I believe were taken from historical accounts of Japanese atrocities in China during the Second World War. The book shifts to a kind of exercise of fiction as a coping mechanism for historical trauma, rather than operating as a self-contained story driven by characterization and world-building. Which is fine, from an artistic perspective. It’s just not very much fun to read.
Despite all that, I still have to put this book in the “Recommend” column. There just aren’t too many epic fantasies with these kinds of settings based on this kind of source material, so I’d encourage anyone to give it a try to see if it’s to your taste.
My rating: 4 Stars